20 Things To Do In Santa Barbara

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The sun-drenched city of Santa Barbara on the Californian coast is what many people would call paradise. Much like its southerly neighbour of Los Angeles, you’ll find brilliant beaches, cool boutique shops and plenty of historical attractions, not to mention some beautiful scenery to explore. Santa Barbara is the place to visit if you’re keen to avoid the crowds of more famous cities on the coast, so plenty of celebrities have made their home there.

Known as the American Riviera, which immediately tells you what to expect – long stretches of pristine beaches. Santa Barbara is fronted by open ocean, including the Channel Islands, where whale watching is popular, and backed by rolling hills and wine country, plus the city itself is brimming with art, culture and an up-and-coming food scene, making the city worth a visit whether for a long weekend or on a PCH road trip.

Santa Barbara, California

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20 Things To Do In Santa Barbara

things to do in santa barbara today Sunny Santa Barbara California Cityscape
Looking for things to do in Santa Barbara. Here are 20 you’ll want to tick off your list.

1- Wander Down State Street

State Street is the most famous avenue in Santa Barbara and the city’s main shopping, dining and nightlife street.

Walking down State Street will quickly acquaint you with the area, and any tours you might take of the area will almost certainly pass through here.

Not only does it have lots of local shops, but also art galleries, theatres, bookshops and a mall.

Each week on Tuesday afternoon, the street hosts the Santa Barbara Farmer’s Market, which can be a nice place to pick up a snack or just mingle with the locals buying their fresh produce.

As the whole street is pedestrianised, you can choose from one of the many great outdoor restaurants for a bite to eat in the evening. Another way to explore is to join an e-bike tour or rent your own and cycle around.

2- Visit The Old Mission

coolest things to do in santa barbara
Visiting the historic Old Spanish Mission is one of the things to do in Santa Barbara.

One of the most famous sights in Santa Barbara is its stunning Old Mission, which is another structure remaining from when the Spanish tried to settle in the area.

The beautiful brick building is an eye-catching salmon pink and was completed in 1786, and is still occupied by Franciscan monks today.

Self-guided tours are available daily between 9 am and 4 pm so that you can explore the two towers, visit the museum and admire the artwork inside.

Afterwards, take a stroll through the La Huerta Historic Garden that is just outside the property.

This trolley tour will take you past the mission and other landmarks in Santa Barbara.

3- Hang Out In Montecito

Regularly named as one of the best places to visit in America and to live, Montecito is to Santa Barbara what Beverly Hills is to LA.

Celebs are scattered around Santa Barbara, but in reality, anyone who’s anyone lives in beautiful Montecito, even including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

It doesn’t have many attractions, but this leafy suburban area is ideal for a short stroll, where you may even spot a famous face.

The quiet area hides the city’s best small beaches, boutique and artisan shops and incredible local restaurants, so it’s the place to be if you want to get away from the tourist crowds.

4- Visit Santa Barbara Maritime Museum

You may not think visiting a Maritime Museum should be high on your list of things to do, but Santa Barbara’s coastal location means the ocean is a key part of its history and present-day industry.

Inside it has some cool artefacts and exhibits, including planes and cannons, so it can be an ideal option for entertaining kids.

There are also several workshops and events that offer more insight into the city’s history, plus guided tours of the museum.

Inside you’ll also find the Outdoor Santa Barbara Visitor’s Centre, which has a lovely view over the ocean.

Santa Barbara Maritime Museum is at 113 Harbor Way STE 190, Santa Barbara, CA 93109.

5- Spend The Day At East Beach

things to do in santa barbara ca
The coast along southern Santa Barbara County is known as the “American Riviera” because of its Mediterranean climate.

You can’t visit Santa Barbara without hitting the beach, of which the city has three major ones.

East Beach is popular but far quieter than its rivals, backed by palm trees and with a huge stretch of golden sand.

Aside from relaxing, sunbathing or enjoying a game of beach volleyball, it’s one of the best places to do some water sports.

You’ll find many rental shops nearby, whether you’re keen to try surfing, jet skiing or going on a kayaking tour.

The beach is also close to some of Santa Barbara’s best seafood restaurants, perfect for refuelling at lunch or dinner after a day on the waves.

6- Visit El Presidio de Santa Barbara

top things to do in santa barbara
The Presidio Chapel at El Presidio de Santa Barbara State Park.

Visiting El Presidio Historic Park is one of the best things to do in Santa Barbara.

The 6-acre (2.4 ha) park features a range of beautiful buildings and a Spanish military settlement.

The settlement was originally built in the 18th century, and you can now visit and explore the 17 different buildings that make up the site.

Inside you’ll find a chapel, original officer’s quarters, and a museum where you can learn about Spanish and Native Americans.

The best part of the park is the pretty heritage garden and the observation tower, which you can climb to reach sweeping views over the area.

You may like this walking tour to learn more about Santa Barbara’s history and architecture. Join this ghost history and mystery walking tour for a spooky exploration of El Presidio.

El Presidio Historic Park is at 123 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

7- Hang Out On Stearn’s Wharf

The iconic Stearn’s Wharf is the oldest in California and one of Santa Barbara’s most popular spots all day and night, whether for a morning coffee, catching a boat trip or enjoying fresh seafood as the sun sets.

To get acquainted, make sure to take a walk along the entire length of the pier and visit the various shops, cafes and museums that are dotted around.

If you visit during the day, it makes for a perfect walk or bike ride (hire bikes here), but it is worth coming back in the evening to visit one of the many great eateries, where your dinner was likely caught just hours before.

You may also like to join this food tour to discover the best places to eat downtown in great company.

8- Go Whale Watching

Whale watching is simply an unmissable activity if you’re on the California coast, as it is one of the world’s best places for catching sight of these amazing animals before they migrate down to Mexico.

With its unique location near the Channel Islands, home to various whale species, including humpback and grey whales, hundreds of tours and boat trips are on offer.

Grey whales appear between November and April, while humpback and blue whales visit from May to November.

Most tours guarantee seeing whales (so common are they!), but you’ll also likely see many other types of whales, dolphins, and sea lions.

9- See The Animals At Santa Barbara Zoo

things to do in santa barbara with kids
Spending time in the zoo is one thing to do with kids in Santa Barbara. Here are some Humboldt Penguins waiting for food.

The Santa Barbara Zoo can easily fill a full day and has so much to see and do, especially if visiting with kids.

The zoo is home to over five hundred types of animals, including birds, insects and reptiles. All of the animals are inside more than 30 acres of lush botanical gardens with views over the Pacific Ocean and nearby mountains.

There are loads of programmes and special events for kids to get involved with learning more about the animals and the zoo’s conservation efforts.

Young kids will love the zoo train, which takes you around the park, while there is also the option to feed the giraffes or farm animals or dig for prehistoric bones in the fossil zone.

Santa Barbara Zoo is at 500 Ninos Dr, Santa Barbara, CA 93103.

10- See A Show At Lobero Theatre

If you’re looking for something to fill your evenings or for a special occasion, the Lobero Theatre is one of the oldest in the state of California and a cultural icon of Santa Barbara.

Depending on when you visit, they put on almost every show imaginable, from classical music to ballet, opera, plays to live music.

It’s also a great way to get a more authentic feel for the city, as it doesn’t just put on big-name shows but also hosts plenty of local performances.

The venue is particularly popular for its regular jazz music shows, which could be the perfect way to round off an evening in the city.

Lobero Theatre is at 33 E Canon Perdido St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

11- Tour The County Courthouse

things to do in santa barbara
The famous Santa Barbara courthouse in California.

The elegant Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a National Historic Landmark and one of the best attractions in the city.

It is also known as one of the most beautiful government buildings in the United States.

After being rebuilt in 1929, the building houses some of California’s most magnificent colonial architecture and interiors.

The tiled rooms are useful for getting out of the midday heat.

After taking a courthouse tour, don’t miss the lush gardens outside and climb the El Mirador Tower, which is 85ft high and has amazing views over the surrounding city.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse is at 1100 Anacapa St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

12- Visit The Reagan Ranch Center

For anyone interested in US Presidents, the Reagan Ranch Centre galleries have fascinating historic displays open to the public for free between Mondays and Thursdays.

Located in downtown Santa Barbara, you can see interactive exhibits and hundreds of artefacts from Ronald Reagan’s time at the ranch and learn more about his time as President.

Some of the most unique items include handwritten letters and a real section of the Berlin Wall, along with Reagan’s own jeep.

For kids, it’s certainly not all dusty history books either, as the ranch offers a fun scavenger hunt that allows children to earn their ‘Junior Secret Service Clearance’.

13- Relax On Arroyo Burro Beach

Also known as Arroyo Burro Beach Park, this is one of three major beaches in Santa Barbara and is possibly the most scenic of the lot.

Popular for water sports, picnics, birdwatching and fishing, this is where the locals go to relax or walk the dog.

This is another beach where there is no shortage of water sports outlets, whether you’re into SUP, kayaking or surfing, with the latter being the most popular due to the big waves off the Cali coast.

Its striking location and scenery make it a favourite with photographers, and at sunset when you can go horse riding or enjoy a picnic or barbecue at any of the spots along the beach.

14- Visit The Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens

best things to do in santa barbara
Visiting the Botanic Garden is one of the relaxing things to do in Santa Barbara.

Although Santa Barbara is home to some great museums, enjoying the outdoors is what Cali life is all about, and the beautiful Botanical Gardens are a must-see to get out into nature.

The huge 78-acre (31 ha) gardens hold over one thousand plant species, including a towering forest of redwoods, for which California is famous.

There are around five miles of walking trails if you plan to get in some exercise, and on your way around, you can stop by the herbarium or library.

However, if you’re particularly green-fingered, opt for a tour with a guide who can point out the most intriguing species.

Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens is at 1212 Mission Canyon Rd, Santa Barbara, CA 93105.

15- Explore MOXI

A relatively new addition to the cultural scene in Santa Barbara and fun for kids and adults alike, MOXI, also known as the Wolf Museum of Exploration and Innovation, is sure to entertain.

The 17,000 sq./ft museum is all about cool science and technology, with loads of exciting attractions and exhibits, including a ginormous guitar and a toy car race track.

If you’re feeling creative, you can even build something with their 3D printer, and for the little ones, they hold a toddler morning once a week.

Don’t miss visiting the rooftop Sky Gallery for epic mountain views and a huge astrology telescope.

MOXI is at 125 State St, Santa Barbara, CA 93101.

16- Hike To The Summit At Inspiration Point

cool things to do in santa barbara
Enjoying nature in the Santa Barbara Mountains is one of the things to do near Santa Barbara. Enjoy views of the city, the Pacific Ocean and Channel Islands.

Everyone in California loves hiking, and Santa Barbara has some of the state’s best trails and landscapes to explore on foot.

To get to the end, you’ll have to go via the Tunnel and Jesusita trails, which pass through the lush green Mission Canyon.

The hike is around 3.5 miles long and normally takes two hours.

The summit at Inspiration Point rewards you with incredible views over the nearby mountains and all the way down the coastline, so on clear sky days in summer, don’t be surprised to find the trail packed with hikers on their way to the top.

17- Feel The Sand Between Your Toes On Leadbetter Beach

things to do in downtown santa barbara
Enjoying coastal activities like sailing is one of the things to do in Santa Barbara.

Unlike Santa Barbara’s other beaches, Leadbetter is artificial, but this does not deter the locals.

It is easily the city’s busiest beach, with soft golden sand and high waves ideal for surfing.

It’s right next to Santa Barbara Harbour, which has plentiful shops and restaurants, plus there are picnic spots, showers, and rental shops for windsurfing, paddleboarding and sailing.

The beach is also not far from shoreline park, where you can take a leisurely walk until you’ll be overlooking the beach and have views of the nearby Channel Islands.

On any given day, there are locals, tourists and students sunbathing and relaxing as it’s next to the city college.

So, make sure to come early and grab a spot if you’re visiting in the summertime.

18- Stroll Around The Funk Zone

If you’re keen to see the lively local areas of Santa Barbara, then the Funk Zone is right up your street.

The area has quickly become a hub for artsy, creative and hipster types.

One of the best ways to explore the neighbourhoods is simply taking a stroll, where you’ll see loads of impressive and colourful murals painted by the local community.

You won’t just find typical artists here but all kinds of artisans, from winemakers to surfboard carvers.

It is also an up-and-coming spot for nightlife in the city, where in the day, it has funky cafes, at night, you’ll find live music, local bars and artistic events and parties.

If you prefer, this food and photography tour will give you local insights into the Funk Zone.

19- Visit Lotusland

Lotusland is entirely unique to Santa Barbara, making it an unmissable activity while you’re in the area.

Formerly owned by famous Polish opera singer Ganna Walska, Lotusland comprises 37 acres (15 ha) of exotic gardens in which rare and unusual plants can be found, which she built over the course of her life.

Now, the gardens are open to the public, and more than 3,000 plant species grow here, which you can learn about on a two-hour guided tour.

The garden is divided into 25 different gardens with different themes and species, from cactuses to Japanese gardens.

However, if you’re planning to visit, you’ll need to book a tour in advance since the garden has a limit of just 15,000 visitors per year, and tickets are released four times a year.

Lotusland is at Cold Spring Rd, Montecito, CA 93108.

20- Taste Amazing Californian Wine 

things to do in santa barbara this weekend. Glass of wine in vineyard on a sunny day.
Going wine tasting is one of the fun things to do in Santa Barbara and surrounding wine regions.

You already know that California is famous worldwide for its amazing wine country, but if you look beyond the touristy NoCal areas of Napa and Sonoma, Santa Barbara is home to some of the state’s best wineries.

The city has its own urban wine trail, much of which stretches through the Funk Zone, with over 20 tasting rooms offering local wines and which you can easily follow yourself in a day.

Around a 45-minute drive into the nearby hills, you can reach the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria Valleys, home to classic rolling vineyards which offer tastings, tours and delicious food.

If you’re planning on heading out to these areas, it’s best to take a tour, which allows you to visit multiple vineyards in one trip and means you can sample as much as you like. Here are some options:

For more California ideas, see:

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India Jayne trainor
India-Jayne Trainor is a British/Australian freelance writer, photographer and contributor to various online blogs and travel websites. She has travelled to almost 30 countries, most recently Cuba and Sri Lanka. Her work focuses on solo female travel, having spent two months backpacking alone through South East Asia as well as living in Germany for a year. Her favourite country to date has been Hong Kong, but she is happy in any country by the ocean. Her next destinations are Uzbekistan and a road trip through the American Mid-West. India is currently based in London, UK.